The Maladjusted

PRISM International, SEPTEMBER 25th, 2012Review by Jennifer Spruit

A scavenger hunt based on this book would yield a suggestive pat on the behind with a racquet, a small pile of one-dollar bills that may or may not keep one man afloat in a foreign country, and repulsive facial hair (twice). In The Maladjusted, Derek Hayes has written sixteen short stories about uneasy people: his characters are often trying very hard to fit in or, even more humourous, thinking they fit in when they don’t. Mostly told in the first person from a male point of view, the stories in this collection take us on a world tour of the maladjusted, from Turkey to Taiwan, from the group home to the basketball court.

“A Feel for America” is about three English teachers in Taipei. John can deal with his overly aggressive roommate, Adam, by tiptoeing around until a new guy arrives. However, Samuel is unruffled by Adam’s hostile takeover of their apartment with his toenail clippings and mildewy clothes, which shifts the balance of power in the house. John becomes unsettled: “You see, this is at the heart of my current anxieties. I’m aware of how things are with three people. Usually one person is the object of ridicule, even if it’s subtle.” John must look deep into the corners of his psyche to decide whom to align himself with. This is a critical decision, not to be taken lightly. Like many of us, John’s biggest fear is being laughed at.

In the title story, Mike takes baby-steps to conquer his social anxiety. A shut-in with ample wit and metacognitive awareness, Mike “only flushes [his] toilet on Wednesday, Friday and Monday nights (before Kim comes on Tuesday).” His social worker, Kim, encourages him to let go and play a game of chess at the local chess club, but Mike isn’t so sure. “I have resisted calling her ‘Mom’, an urge that I’ve had ever since I first called her that.”

It’s easy to identify with the characters in these stories who struggle to obtain the acceptance of others: Melanie, the compulsive liar terrified of confrontation in “That’s Very Observant of You;” Alan, the I-wish-I-could-do-that race watcher in “The Runner” who is obsessed with what may be facial hair on his girlfriend’s upper lip; and Russell, an internet gamer whose mother forces him to go to Vietnam in “A Wonderful Holiday.” However, Hayes also writes characters that are not so sympathetic. “In the Low Post” is about a street ball tyrant gaining prestige by making children buy him slushies and kicking people off his court at will. Yet underneath all his bravado, James is desperate for positive attention, and competes with a rival over the opportunity to train a young player. On the surface, “Green Jerseys” is about a know-it-all teaching assistant who overrides the teacher and alienates the entire school. Here again, Hayes takes us deeper: Gus is a complex character who wants his students’ approval as much as they should want his. Hayes does so much with what is unsaid: being sensitive to how social needs affect behaviour allows some really delicious ironies while rendering those who are unlikeable (mostly) personable.

Some of the stories didn’t work for me: “Tom and Wilkie,” the history of a town over the lifetime of two men, was taking on too much of a timespan to be effective, and “Shallowness” descended too far into (you guessed it) shallowness. However, most of the stories in this collection have “an immediate, authentic feel. Like when I was up north camping and saw an owl.” That kind of authenticity.

What I loved most about Hayes’ writing is that many of his characters aren’t afraid to put it out there. From the woman who gives a painfully honest rant to confront the waiter who slighted her in “That’s Very Observant of You” to the college kid who attempts to interview his fellow students while they lather up in the shower (“My Horoscope”), these are people who have made a decision not to care so much about what other people think. Does it always work? No. But is it funny? Yes.

The globe & mail, february 8, 2012Reviewed by Jim Bartley

 Derek Hayes must certainly be the only Canadian writer who has taught high school on three continents and been graced with a cover blurb from Martin Amis. It’s impossible to enter this story collection without vaulting hopes.

We open with "A Feel for America" and its trio of young teachers in Taiwan, three-quarters of the faculty at grouchy Mr. Hou’s English-language school. John, our tale-teller, answered an ad in Toronto and now shares a grotty Taipei flat with a sporty American, Samuel, and the violently snooty Adam, a Brit who really should go home before he injures someone. One of his subtler aggressions is underwear that hangs on every available object because in Taipei, “it’s humid.” Hayes’s remarkably redolent setting backdrops a fascinating three-way tango ending in a decisive power shift.

Next up is "The Maladjusted", offering a completely convincing journey into manageable mental illness. Among his anti-social eccentricities, Mike collects discarded furniture, fashioning it into elaborate tunnels and mazes in his apartment as a challenge to his social worker. No mental slouch, Mike engages in “Kantian thought experiments” and discovers a talent for chess that proves worth developing.

Whether Melanie is mentally ill or just troubled would depend on who you ask. She holds down a job, but her social anxiety and petty fibbing are debilitating. "That’s Very Observant of You" is both the story’s title and the snide comment (from a waiter) that breaks her from her shell. The closing dialogue — largely an indignant burst of monologue from Melanie — rounds the tale off smartly.

"Green Jerseys" filters a Toronto Greek immigrant’s work as a teaching assistant through a sports metaphor. Gus’s school time makes for some of his happiest moments, and also his most frustrating; his English fluency is shaky while his teaching quirks rub superiors the wrong way. He comes to realize that, in the guise of career development, his boss is pushing him out. Hayes doesn’t take sides. The story’s dilemmas flow inevitably from its deft grappling with human foibles.

In "Maybe You Should Get Back Here", Max and Nadia share a bed. With them lives Chris, Max’s old college roommate. They cook and eat and watch TV together, tossing out their usual affectionate or testy sarcasms. Lately, a household shift is occurring – or is Max just imagining it? He forces a change. The premise is not surprising here, but Hayes’s storytelling, eschewing closure, finally is.

"An Empty Tank of Gas" explores similar affectional shifts among housemates, adding the compelling complexities of life in Istanbul. Two imported English teachers share a flat with an adult student whose charms vie with her reasonable aversion to tidying up man litter. There are some gratuitous flirtations with the travel genre here, vivid enough to be forgivable.

Russell lives with his mom in Toronto. She even helps him negotiate time off his job for a foreign vacation. "A Wonderful Holiday" moves subtly toward the wake-up moment when, at the Hanoi hotel check-in, we see Russell mistaken for a native by the clerk. Hayes’s shrewd choice, for four misleading pages, to let us see a white Canuck in our mind’s eye makes us feel Russell’s disoriented condition all the more acutely. Vietnamese comes at him with most every encounter, and he can reply only in abashed Canadian English. Watching him grow into his neglected roots is increasingly gratifying.

The 16 entries include some lapses, stories that feel flawed in conception or stranded in mid-development. Tom and Wilkie attempts, in 10 pages, to encompass six decades in the life of a small Ontario farming community. Hayes wisely filters the years through the limited viewpoints of just two men, but the overreaching ambition (and easy sentiment) of the effort leave both cast and story feeling two-dimensional. "Shallowness" is simply a petty e-mail from a disgruntled office worker: a pot inanely smearing a kettle. Inertia presents intriguing characters but ends as a rote life lesson on the risks of dropping out of school and smoking weed all day.

Misfires aside, the collection is rich with engaging characters, keenly evoked settings and a sensitive eye for the margins and the marginalized. To quote Amis, Derek Hayes is indeed “worth keeping an eye on.”

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.

the national post, jan 13, 2012

Reviewed by Steven W. Beattie

The word “dignity” appears repeatedly in The Maladjusted, the debut story collection by Toronto resident Derek Hayes. “You’re talking about human dignity,” thinks Melanie, the awkward office drone in “That’s Very Observant of You.” “We all have dignity.” In the book’s closing story, the narrator, a worker at a group home for adults with mental disorders, imagines potential interactions with a new female colleague: “I want to show off how much I know about the Riverdale Group Home: how dispensing medicine is crucial to the mental health of each member, how it’s important not to condescend to them but to treat them with dignity.” Basic human dignity, Hayes suggests repeatedly, is at a premium in our modern world. Rarely is it offered; often it must be fought for, or taken by force.

The attempt to wrest some measure of dignity from a world that seems intent on denying it is at the heart of the characters’ struggles in these spare, frequently moving stories. The narrator in the title story, a chess aficionado who suffers from a kind of agoraphobia, is arguably more attuned to the nature of his disaffection than the protagonists elsewhere in the collection. “I don’t watch TV,” he says plainly. “I have nothing in common with Chandler, Joey or Ross.” Few of Hayes’s characters — outsiders, misfits, the mentally ill and rejected — cleave to accepted cultural notions of normality: They are more often insecure, socially awkward or otherwise unacclimatized to the conventions of modern life. “Do you hear voices?” the agoraphobe is asked when he finally ventures out to the neighbourhood chess club at the behest of his kindly, 65-year-old psychiatrist. “No,” he responds, “but sometimes I feel a bit maladjusted.”

Hayes’s misfit characters run the gamut from relatively self-aware (“I’m the one with the unhealthy fixation,” says the narrator of “The Runner,” referring to his obsession with the fine black hairs on his girlfriend’s upper lip) to utterly oblivious. Gus Petropolous, the aging special needs assistant at a Toronto school, attempts to forge a camaraderie with the teachers in opposition to the school principal, all the while remaining embarrassingly clueless about the antipathy with which his putative supporters view him. The narrative perspective remains closely tied to Gus, but employs levels of irony to allow the reader to pierce the old man’s unfortunate delusions: “I’ve only been in Canada for five years. My English still isn’t great. They believe I’m an ignorant man. They can’t leap into the awareness that, even though I don’t say much and even though I pronounce things incorrectly, there’s an acute consciousness on this side of my thick eyebrows.”

Gus’s passion for discipline and his genuine affection for Bobby, the special needs student he assists, render him a pathetic figure; the story’s irony derives from the inability of its protagonist to comprehend the distance between his motives and the way other people see him. In the same vein, Mark, the group-home worker in “The Lover,” tries agonizingly to appeal to women but comes off as a poor sad sack, at least until his epiphanic realization late in the story: “Let’s examine my history with women, shall we? What do I see? The nervous, deranged twenty-four-year-old, the thirty-three-year-old insufferable liar, and the needy, desperate twit of my forties.” This recognition, arriving as it does in time to provide Mark at least a provisionally happy ending, is a tad too easy, and is emblematic of a tendency for these stories to err too much on the side of neatness as opposed to a frank confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern world.

Take, for example, Melanie, the Miss Lonelyhearts character in “That’s Very Observant of You.” Melanie is enamoured with a handsome server at the Lucky Dragon Restaurant near her office. When she finally works up the nerve to speak to him, she remarks on how busy he must be that evening. Scanning the nearly empty restaurant, the waiter utters the caustic line that provides the story with its title. All well and good, but a subsequent scene undercuts this socially awkward moment by offering a brief reconciliation, in the process calling into question both characters’ essential natures. It’s a means of letting Melanie off the hook, but it also feels unconvincing and vaguely dishonest.

Still, one returns to the insistence on human dignity, something that appears as a driving force throughout this collection. It is perhaps churlish to complain that certain characters are allowed to find something approaching happiness in the final stages of these stories (although the closing paragraph of “That’s Very Observant of You” indicates that Melanie is probably too neurotic to ever discover complete peace of mind). And it’s not unwarranted to note that The Maladjusted is blurbed by Martin Amis — one of the most pitiless writers in the English canon. Compassion can be overvalued as a fictional device, and certain of these stories tend too far in that direction. But perhaps the notion that good things — even small and contingent ones — should befall people now and then is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. Maybe, once the ironies and embarrassments the characters fall prey to are stripped away, the meagre solace that accrues is not entirely unjustified.

The Winnipeg Review, November 16, 2011

In his aptly named first collection of stories, Derek Hayes presents a relentless assortment of social misfits, bullies, brooders debilitated by shyness, loners who over-think their every move to the point of paralysis. As one of them says, “I’m already too self-conscious. I’m self-conscious of my self-consciousness.”

I don’t love this book. I like parts of it. I appreciate, for example, how Hayes gets the voices of characters such as Mike, the protagonist of his title story. Mike is socially awkward, probably a genius, maybe autistic. Just as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time caught the rich inner life of an autistic boy, Hayes captures the inner monologue in Mike’s head in a way that is both excruciating and enlightening. Mike’s only contact with the outside world — besides his visits with his social worker — happen when he sits on his fire escape spying on his neighbour at three in the morning. Mike yearns for some other kind of human connection but is scared of people and doesn’t know how to be with them. With his social worker’s help Mike has developed a three-step plan to meet people at a chess club. When he finally sits down and plays a game of chess with a stranger, he has the climactic – and beautifully understated – revelation that he can do it, he can get over himself, at least for a little while.  “I’ve been distracted for thirty minutes, without metacognitive awareness,” he says, “It’s a pleasant respite, really.”

Hayes seems at his best when he’s writing about the basketball court or teaching, clearly two subjects he’s familiar with. In those settings his dialogue moves briskly and the story along with it. He has a good feel for young men and their pissing wars, for the ugly interplay among bullies, the bullied and the ones who watch from the sidelines. In “A Feel for America,” two young men who’ve been teaching awhile in the same ESL school and sharing an apartment in Taiwan close ranks when a new teacher moves in, a former linebacker from Denver. Alpha male struggles ensue and the balance of power shifts. In the story “In The Low Post,” a twenty-five-year old man dominates the local basketball court in a north Toronto ghetto, bullying his minions into submission the same way he was bullied when he was a kid. Like other bullies, this guy sees himself as a mentor, a teacher, a general, until a new kid on the court fights back and shows him up for the tormenter he is.

I would have enjoyed this book more if the writing hadn’t kept getting in the way. Hayes’ prolific use of adverbial speech tags reminded me of the old Tom Swifty pun, “Take the prisoner downstairs,” said Tom condescendingly. Throughout the book are these: “She dropped the video clumsily,” “he says absentmindedly,” “She smiled nervously,” and “the ball haplessly bounced.” I saw so many in the first story I wondered if this was a conscious choice, a device he was using to develop the voice of the main character, an insecure man who felt he had to explain too much. But after finding them in the next story and the next, I wondered peevishly, where is the editor?

I was also distracted when characters spoke out of character. A twenty-year old woman says, “Maybe it will give my nerves a rest,” which is something my grandmother might have said. Or a young man says, to signal that we’re about to have a flashback, “My thoughts unfurl four years to Camp Skyhawk.” There are other awkward moments too. This mixed metaphor, for instance, sent me spinning: “He’s struggling like a wounded antelope trying to keep up with the herd, scanning the crowd like a small child at the zoo....”

Many of these stories read like character sketches rather than complete short stories, and some were more like self-help guides. “That’s very observant of you,” where a very large lonely woman screws up her courage to proposition a waiter, is a case study in how to overcome your fears when you’re socially stigmatized. “The Maladjusted” is about how to make friends and face down your inner monsters. “Inertia” describes what happens when you smoke too much dope.

Hayes clearly has empathy for his characters and interesting things to say about outsiders. He knows about the lonely and their torments, which are potent subjects for great storytelling. I just think that he needs to work on explaining less and editing more so the stories can be told.

— Alex Merrill


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